Children In Odisha’s Govt Schools Have Strength & Capability, Give Them Facilities

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I visited the Government Primary School of Hatabaradiha in Chilika Block (Khurdha district) of Odisha last month. It is nearly 80 km away from Bhubaneswar. I was in the school from 12 noon till it closed at 4 pm. Only four hours is too short a period to observe and comment on the classroom process, health, hygiene and sanitation, etc. Still, whatever little I saw during the period needs a mention, because it is clearly a pointer of our school system.

Established in 1975, Hatabaradiha UP School has provision to teach from Class 1 to 8. There are 10 teachers in the school. However, on the day that I visited, one teacher was on leave and two teachers were away for collecting question papers for the class examinations from the Block Education Office (BEO). Two other teachers have been deployed in the BEO for several years. This left only five teachers working on that day.

One science teacher had attended the recent five days’ teachers’ training programme conducted by the NCERT at Bhubaneswar. During our interaction he expressed satisfaction with the training and hoped it would have a positive impact on the school. A teacher has to work a little harder for implementing the training inputs at the school level, he said. When I visited his Class 8, I could feel the change. The students had been divided into small groups and were engaged in cooperative learning. The students also said that the class of ‘Ghadei Sir’, the science teacher, is now more joyful than before.

The school has only five usable classrooms. A classroom, not in use, is in a dilapidated condition. “It will be demolished soon and new construction will take place,” the Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator (CRCC), who accompanied me, said. Eight classes have to function in only five classrooms. This has been a major problem of the school, the teachers said. “How do you manage?” I asked. The answer came from the headmaster, “Classes 1 and 2 sit in one room while Classes 3, 4 and 5 in another room. Only Classes 6-8 children have independent classrooms. There are two feeder primary schools (Class 1 to 5) of the school. Their children join the Hatabaradiha school in Class 6. This has limited the enrollment up to Class 5 in the school. The class size is 18 to 20 at that stage. It suddenly  swells to 67 students in Class 6 with 92 students in Class 7 and 80 in Class 8.

The total enrolment in the school is 340- boys 154 and girls 186. Further, among the scheduled caste (SC) children also, there are more girls (60) than boys (55). Largely the fishermen, categorised as SC, live in the vicinity. Their coming to the school is a great change maker in the region. On the day of my visit, out of 340 students only 234 students were present, ‘because it was post-Diwali day’.

All the children from Class 1 to 8 sit on the bare floor. Every time the teacher asks a question, they have to stand up and answer. I saw a few students carrying their personal mat. There is electricity and the fans also work. There are separate toilets for boys and girls and they are functional too. Deep bore well water is available for drinking and cooking midday meals. It is tasty and ‘certified’ to be safe by the teachers.

The school has no space for developing a learning corner and in the name of a library, the books are kept in a trunk.The school has no garden and no play ground. Children play in the corridor during lunch hour. Despite all this, the children appeared cheerful and were ready to converse with a visitor like me. Though they did not ask questions, they were ever-ready to respond. You ask a question and they have the answer. Their self-esteem is their strength.

I intervened in Class VI and VIII and even dictated a few simple sentences to assess their learning level. The children were forthcoming and eager to learn. In this respect, the girls outshone the boys; they were vocal and inquisitive. All the children of Class 6 were able to write in Odia, though nearly 40% of them were  not able to write with due punctuation marks, etc. The children of Class 8 wrote in English, which I dictated. They were simple sentences. Only a few of them committed spelling errors. In both the classes I observed that children using rolled notebooks and were  good in their hand-writing. When I asked the benefit of rolled note books, the students said that they enable one to get a good handwriting, the letters are consistent and the lines straight. Even margin was given in a rolled copy.

I suggested that parents should purchase only rolled notebooks for school use. I suggested to the teachers to ensure that after the copy in use is exhausted, the children procure a rolled copy. I also suggested that each child should have a special notebook for handwriting purpose and everyday, he or she should write or copy at least one page from any book or a newspaper. When I asked, how will this be beneficial, they again replied: spelling errors will be less, handwriting will be good, and word meaning will be comprehensible and even subject knowledge will improve. I was pleasantly surprised that they knew the benefits but were not able to use a particular method. Is it due to the lack of cooperation from the parents? I also suggested them to ask their parents to purchase a dictionary.  In Class 8, I found that they knew what a dictionary is and the method of using it. In both the classes I asked them individually, what they would like to become in life; the answer varied from doctor, nurse, teacher, train driver, soldier and engineer. They were not shy in their responses and seemed to be determined to achieve their goal. This I consider to be the game changer in rural and ‘deprived’ Odisha.

The midday meal was a living experience for me. I could not go anywhere for lunch since there are no public eating places around. Due to the lack of a common dining place, the children collected their share and sat in the corridor. It was good quality (clean) boiled rice and dalma containing only a little dal and potato and very little palwal. The cook had brought a little saag from his home for himself, which he gave to me. One teacher had brought cucumber and tomato salad. Without these dishes, I suspect, eating the meal would have been difficult for me. I learnt, the village Self Help Group (SHG) manages the midday meal. Secondly, less than 05 rupees is given per child every day, which is too meagre for the supplement of vegetables. One egg is given and it costs six rupees and to compensate the money loss, the meal of other days gets affected. This story apart, since the children are from a very average economic background, they do not miss the meal, the teachers said. The midday might not have brought them to school, but it has really sustained them in the school system.

On the whole, the visit was a life experience for me. There are  problems. I overheard from the teachers that attending meetings frequently and complying to queries from the authorities, etc., exhaust them. If the teachers are left with some freedom in the school; one teacher per class and a headmaster is posted for accountability, the government schools will surely outshine all other schools. Nearly 86 per cent children study in government schools in the state. The collapse or failure of government school will indicate nothing but the collapse of the state. As I saw, the children in this particular school do not suffer from  poor self-esteem, which is  the single most strength of the school.

(The writer is a Professor of History, Regional Institute of Education)

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